The Agribusiness Debt Trap Pushes American Farmers to Suicide
Over ten years ago in India, farmers who made an ill-fated bargain with genetically-modified crop seed providers found themselves under such debt that they began to commit suicide in numbers over 10,000 per year. A similar bad arrangement is plaguing American farmers now, stuck with having to stay on the GMO-pesticide-herbicide cycle every year, with similarly disastrous consequences.
The fundamental nature of the GMO provider trap is similar everywhere it appears. Independent farmers, already under pressure to produce at higher yields because of lowering food prices, are looking for a fast way to break through. The GMO providers offer the prospect of higher crop yields for the farmers, even though numerous studies in the U.S. at least have questioned whether those yields are a reality. When the GMO crops are partnered with herbicides such as Monsanto’s Roundup with glyphosate, or Gmo-matched pesticides, the farmers get what they see as an even better deal. They can proceed with heavy applications of a pesticide or herbicide that the GMO crop was genetically-engineered to resist. Those heavy applications will kill unwanted plants or pests attempting to encroach on the farmland, further improving the yields and simplifying the farming process. In some cases, the crops even create their own built-in pesticide through the genetic-engineering process, making the seeds truly seem like a magical gift.
With the deal come multiple catches, few of which are apparent to the farmers when they first sign up with the GMO providers. The first is that the seed, although it may seem like any other seed they have had before, is a patented product owned by the company providing the seed. Among other things what that means is that if there is excess seed left over at the end of a planting season, even though the farmers may have paid for that seed they do not have a right to plant it next season. To keep using the same seed product in a second year they must buy again, often at higher – even significantly higher – prices than they had to pay in that first ‘introductory’ year of the use of the seed. The pesticides and herbicides are also often proprietary products matched precisely to the specific GMOS the farmers have planted. Those items are also constantly going up in price, but if the farmers want to keep going they must keep paying the prices for those as well. The next part of the trap is that it is often very difficult for a farmer who has started using a GMO seed to switch back to conventional seeds. The reason here is that since there is inevitably leftover GMO seed still resident in a farmers’ soils, when the new planting season comes around, some of that residual seed will germinate and grow. Since those seeds are part of the patented property of the GMO provider, in the U.S. at least and now more commonly in other countries as well, the GMO provider may visit farms it supplied seed for in the past – or adjacent to such farms – to see if farmers who have decided not to renew their purchase contracts with the GMO providers are “illegally” making use of some of the residual seed. In the U.S. the GMO providers have either sued or threatened to sue farmers for “theft of intellectual property” if their residual seed grows in the new year. Faced with massive legal fees if they try to fight the cases, farmers often cave in and agree to pay for yet another year of use of the genetically-modified seed.
The final part of the trap is perhaps the most insidious. With ordinary seed, there may be as many as thousands of different varieties of any given kind of crop being planted in a region. Such biodiversity is one of many ways nature helps protect itself from becoming a victim of a given pest or weed that may come its way. With GMO seeds, the agribusiness providers look to massproduce a single species of genetically-engineered crops as a cost-savings move. That eliminates that biodiversity protection, sometimes with devastating results.
In India, one way this manifested only a handful of years ago was with Monsanto’s Bt Bollgard and Bt Bollgard-ii cotton seeds. The first Bt Bollgard crops had been engineered to protect against the existing strains of pink bollworm (pectinophora gossypiella), a pest which left on its own could run through an entire cotton crop quickly and destroy a major part of a farmers’ yields. Nature has a way of protecting itself, so as the first Bt Bollgard strains went out in volume in the fields, the original pink bollworm evolved quickly in the face of so much of just one thing to protect itself from. An evolutionary branch of the original pink bollworm which was immune to the built-in pesticide in Bt Bollgard appeared, attacking farmers in large volumes.
Monsanto responded with the second-generation Bt Bolgard-ii seed variety, but even that the pest quickly responded to it by evolving resistance yet again.
In India’s case the pest responded in small numbers starting in 2010, without a lot of impact on yields. Then in the 2015-16 season larger quantities of crop were affected, with yield losses of 7 to 8 percent. The situation grew far worse for the coming year. State revenue and agricultural agencies reported in November 2017 and February-march 2018 that the evolved pink bollworm had affected over 80% of the 4.2 million ha just in the Maharashtra region alone. Farmers reported losing as much as 33% to over 50% of the standing crop. In 2018 the projections for the entire region suggested a minimum dip in cotton production of at least 40% across-the-board, all because of the single-variety seed being used by the farmers and the evolutionary speed with which the pink bollworm can respond to that single-point threat.
Farmers responded by attempted to flood their lands with pesticides which they hoped would stop the spread of the pests. The pesticide did virtually nothing to stop the pests. In the application process, it did unfortunately poison the lands for other things. In runoff, it also leached into waterways and affected the safety of drinking water, among other things.
With expenses high to keep planting and crop yields way down, farmers responded with the only thing they could do. They committed suicide in large numbers, under pressure from others they owed money to and unable to meet even a small fraction of the demands placed on them.
In the U.S. nothing has happened directly like the pink bollworm problem, but there is still the same risk. The biggest issue instead is predatory market development practices the GMO providers use to lock farmers into their products – and then destroy them.
In some ways the practice is akin to the way drug pushers acquire new customers. They provide initial quantities at low cost, sometimes help with direct financing and in other cases help with indirect support of the farmers in other ways. They come across as the good friends of the farmers, just there to help out. It’s an addictive siren song that “we’re all in this together”, when in fact that is about as far as possible from the truth as it could be. Instead, when yields turn out now to be less than what they might have been projected to be, or climate change impacts the crop yields, the once good friend to the farmer mask comes down. Even if times are going well, the seed providers often jack up the prices in the coming seasons, knowing the farmers have little choice but to comply or face any number of calamities in attempting to switch back away from GMO crops to something else. These of course include all the issues described above.
The situation is now even worse after industry consolidation has made it harder for farmers to look for alternatives to their existing GMO seeds. Germany’s Bayer, also a major genetically-modified crop provider and agribusiness giant, recently merged with Monsanto. Dow Chemical and Dupont have pooled their resources together. Even Syngenta, formed and managed in Switzerland, is now owned by Chem China, a massive Chinese conglomerate.
With the trap of having to stay with GMOS and with prices being raised on those products and their partner chemicals, one side of the pressure trap is solidly in place for America’s farmers. Farm incomes have unfortunately also continued to drop since 2013. 2018 incomes are currently projected to close at 35 percent less than what they were just five years ago.
This combined pressure has, according to a report released by CBS News, caused farmers to die – with suicide being a major factor just as it is in India – at numbers over five times that of the general population. This is happening despite the overall national suicide rate itself now having risen rapidly in the past couple of decades.
The situation is only going to be getting worse in the near future for farmers who didn't previously make the switch to organic farming. Prices of Gmo-related supplies will continue to go up, yields will come down as superweeds and superbugs evolve to attack the crops (just as they did in India), and climatechange induced losses from higher temperatures and increasing drought will create further harm. If the projected overall crop demands drop as a result of counter-tariffs in the Trump-induced trade wars, something which is already becoming visible, that will hurt even more. There also appears to be a looming economic sag coming ahead for the nation and the world as early as 2019. That on top of everything else could dampen demand for all but the most critical crops, which in turn will lower prices and hurt farmers everywhere.
Now is a good time for farmers to consider switching to indoor intensive hydroponic and aquaponic farming. The demand for pesticide-free fruits and vegetables continues to grow rapidly while production costs decline with new technology.